The Biennial Questionnaire: Nicolas Bourriaud on the Taipei Biennial

13 September 2014 through 4 January 2015

By J.J. Charlesworth

Nicolas Bourriaud. © Taipei Fine Arts Museum

ArtReviewWhen you finished working on Altermodern, your edition of the Tate Triennial, in 2009, you said you had no idea if you would curate any more biennials. Since then, you’ve curated the Athens Biennale (in 2011), and you’re now finishing work on the Taipei Biennial. Over that time, globalisation has grown relentlessly as an issue for the artworld. Is there a regional aspect to your Taipei Biennial, or could it take place anywhere?

Nicolas Bourriaud When Roberto Rossellini shoots Stromboli (1950), or when Jean-Luc Godard chooses Capri for the setting of Le Mépris (1963), the location does have an impact on an open screenplay. Conversely, James Cameron starts filming with a complete story-board, in any studio, and it could happen anywhere. Some directors intend to capture the environment they are working in, and some others don’t. Jacques Rivette said that every feature film is a documentary on its conditions of production, and it is also true for art exhibitions. If you take Athens and Taipei, the first was a very collective work with a tragically small budget: besides the artworks, we ended up completing the exhibition with extracts from Fritz Lang, Jean Painlevé and many other stolen images, and lots of historical material documenting the Greek crisis and its nineteenth-century roots. I never found the budget to realise the feature film that was part of the exhibition, the story of Walter Benjamin alive in Athens in 2011 – he would have been played by Henry Hopper – but the whole process was a very creative and moving moment: artists and curators were all involved in filling a huge ruined building with strong contents, wherever it came from…

Concerning Taipei, it is another world: of course I included Taiwanese artists in the list, but I also came with a specific idea that triggers a dialogue between Western and Asiatic philosophy, around the notion of the human subject. As always I started with an image, and I picked Karl Marx’s ‘ghost dance’. In Capital, he invents this weird concept in order to explain how the system of industrial production turns products into subjects, and workers into products. Our entering into what scientists call the ‘anthropocene’ challenges this concept, and makes it more complex: today, human beings are involved in a new ‘ghost dance’ not only with industry, but also with our environment and our atmosphere, with animals, domestic technology, bacteria or plants.

ARYou’ve titled the biennial The Great Acceleration, centring it on the theme of ‘art and its new ecosystem’. In your notes you draw on recent philosophical debates coming under the rubric of ‘speculative realism’ (you reference philosophers Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman) that have shifted attention away from interhuman relations to the relationship of global human society to other, nonhuman systems, processes and agents. What turned your attention towards these themes? It’s a long way from the human-centred days of relational aesthetics!

NB The idea of the exhibition came from an article explaining that the number of robots and programmes operating on the Internet now exceeds the number of human beings using the net. Relational aesthetics directly came from the appearance of the Internet in the early 1990s, so it was time to rethink its premises…

Relational aesthetics is now criticised for being too anthropocentric – I am OK with that. But I stand for it, too: the main political agenda for art consists in rehumanising those spheres from which the human has withdrawn – from the economy to ecology. 

The sphere of interhuman relations cannot be conceived any more without its environmental and technological sides. Since the beginning of this century, contemporary artists have tended to renegotiate their relationships with both the technosphere and biosphere, exploring the knots that link the living and the object, the machine and the body, the tech-no-logical and the social – and experiencing their interdependence. If we take the anthropocene as a hypothesis, how does it transform our vision of the world? Is there still such a thing as a direct interhuman relation? On the other hand, I am aware that I’m not curating exhibitions for frogs or stones: art is a purely interhuman activity, and when speculative realism assumes that human subjectivity is no more important than a gust of wind, when Levi Bryant tries to ‘think an object for-itself that isn’t an object for the gaze of a subject, representation, or a cultural discourse’, it clearly excludes art. Relational aesthetics is now criticised for being too anthropocentric – I am OK with that. But I stand for it, too: the main political agenda for art consists in rehumanising those spheres from which the human has withdrawn – from the economy to ecology. I think speculative realism brings an interesting perspective to the Western subject – in those terms, it plays a role that is equivalent to structuralism in the 1950s and 60s. But it also goes in the political direction of global capitalism, when it becomes a tribute to reification and a defeat for individuals against the agency of high-frequency trading, for example. We need to expand the presence of the human, not to fight against a so-called anthropocentrism. The default criticism of any kind of -centrism has become a caricature. What about ‘money-centrism’? It is far more dangerous.

ARIn many respects, your agenda for Taipei is part of an increasingly internationalised critical debate that now seems to transcend any sense of locality. How do you see the global function of the biennial developing at the moment?

NB Problematics and issues are now global, but you don’t address them in the same way from Bogotá or from London. Biennials are meeting points, they even seem to become the only way for a curator to work abroad and engage in a dialogue with other contexts, as museums and art centres are now mainly producing their own content with their regular staff. Back in the 1990s, it was common to be invited to do an exhibition in an art centre, but such institutions are less and less keen to invite guest curators. I was invited last week to speak during the first International Biennial Association meeting in Berlin, and I tried to remind the audience that a good biennial is in the first instance a good show, that a good show must affirm an aesthetic position and that the only real issue for a biennial is how to engage in a dialogue with the local scene and its cultural frame, and rethink the parameters of the biennial itself through this dialogue.

ARIn 2012 you took over as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA) in Paris. How are your original ambitions for the school working out?

NB I am still developing the same agenda, which consists in affirming the original model of the school as an educational complex, based on its historical ‘DNA’. Beaux-Arts de Paris has a rich collection, an exhibition building and a publishing company, and its pedagogical model always consisted in confronting the students with artworks and artists, through a triangular system that mixes theoretical classes, the learning of technical skills and the students’ affiliation to a studio run by an artist. We are somewhere in between the German system, totally independent from the university, and the Anglo-Saxon one, which is completely aligned with it. Ten years ago, everybody in France was afraid of the Bologna process [a series of meetings and agreements, from 1999 onwards, between European nations, designed to achieve compatibility in standards of higher education], but the education system has now largely swallowed it; now they are afraid of the artworld, which I somehow embody, but we will swallow the artworld in the same way. An art school should be equidistant from both the academy and the art system.

ARYou’re often credited with being a key figure in the process of opening out the French art scene onto the wider world, after a period (in the 1980s) when French art was institutionally inward-looking and substantially supported by the state. From where you stand now, is there still a distinctly French art scene, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses?

NB Back in the 1990s, it was the first question I was asked, but I am quite happy to see that the question is not raised that often any more… Maybe because the French art scene has become much more international than it was when I began to work, around 1990. The generation of artists I supported at the time, from Pierre Huyghe to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, has proven that French art was not doomed. For the Taipei Biennial, I have invited Neïl Beloufa, David Douard, Gilles Barbier and Camille Henrot. But I never think in national terms, and that might be a good symptom for the French scene, which was always strong when openly international. 

The Taipei Biennial is on view from 13 September 2014 through 4 January 2015. This article was first published in the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.